I have just finished reading the very last “Little House” book to my daughters. I started reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in August last year, a chapter a night, most nights. And now, seven books later, we are done.
It has been an interesting project. The girls have been fascinated by accounts of pioneering life, from making clothes by hand, and wearing layer upon layer upon layer of clothes, even in hot weather, to rearing calves and raising crops, to working on slates at school. They were astonished to find that tomatoes were regarded as fruit, and puzzled that the only viable job for Laura was teaching school.
I have enjoyed re-reading the books as an adult. Some of the stories touched me, in a way that simply was not possible when I was a child. I grieved for Laura’s sister Mary’s blindness, and empathised with Ma’s grief, because as an adult, I can understand just how becoming unsighted could have a devastating impact on a child’s future, especially in a time when there were so few resources and options for blind people. I could understand Pa’s physical weariness from the long days in the field, and feel Pa’s and Ma’s increasing worry as the long winter became longer and longer and longer, and the food started to run out. I was intrigued by Laura becoming “Mary’s eyes”, describing the world to her in colourful and evocative language – was this the beginning of Laura’s ability to write? There is some dispute over just who is responsible for the “Little House” books – was it Laura or was it her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane or was it some felicitous combination of both women? To me, the fanciful but descriptive words and phrases that Laura uses, and more particularly the literal-minded responses that Mary makes to them, perhaps indicative of on-going bickering between the girls, suggest that Laura, both as the character in the book, and in real life, had a way with words, which her daughter was able to help her to shape into the wonderful stories we know today. I recall, however, that when I read these books as a child, the wonderful imagery simply passed me by. Not a waste, ‘though. I think that the joy of the books stayed with me, and even when my girls were tiny, I had marked the books out as being something that I might be able to read aloud to them one day.
I was fascinated when I realised that as a teenage girl, Laura lived and worked in De Smet, Dakota, a town that was technically in the Wild West. There’s a vivid account of two drunk men sailing down the boardwalks in the town and kicking the screen doors on every shop in, but aside from that, the picture is of a small farming community, made up of people trying to claim their 160 acres from the government. These hard working small holders were loathed by the big ranchers and cattle men, because they took up the free space on the prairie, and perhaps they were loathed, or at least disliked in return, so it is not all that surprising that the traditional cowboys barely feature in the “Little House” books.
Laura herself is a feisty independent girl and woman, so I was taken aback when she explicitly rejected votes for women. But the rejection comes in the midst of a remarkable conversation with her fiance, when they are setting a date for their marriage.
Laura was silent again. Then she summoned all her courage and said, “Almanzo, I must ask you something. Do you want me to promise to obey you?”
Soberly he answered, “Of course not. I know it is in the wedding ceremony, but it is only something that women say. I never knew one that did it, not any decent man that wanted her to.”
“Well, I am not going to say I will obey you,” said Laura.
“Are you for woman’s rights, like Eliza?” Almanzo asked in surprise.
“No,” Laura replied. “I do not want to vote. But I cannot make a promise that I will not keep, and Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgement.”
(My daughters were astonished by the concept that wives ought to obey husbands. They said, “But Mum, you don’t obey Dad!” and “Did you promise to obey Dad when you married him?” They were relieved when I said that I made no such promise.)
This bespeaks a woman who knows herself, and knows what she can and can’t commit herself too. Moreover, she wants to sort this out before she gets married, rather than hoping to muddle through. She has also been determined to earn an income of her own, before she marries, and contribute to the household, rather than just depending on her parents for support. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to cast her as a feminist, even though the year in which Laura had this conversation, 1885, was nearly 40 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, often referred to as the birthplace of feminism, and it was just eight years later that women in New Zealand gained the vote, and only two years after that that women gained the vote in South Australia, both pioneer societies like Dakota Territory. Laura was strong minded and independent, a woman of feminist qualities (qualities which are of course possessed too by people who wouldn’t claim the title, “feminist”), but it would be a mistake to claim her as a feminist in retrospect. Nevertheless, I think she is someone to be admired.
What fascinated me most of all was realising that although Laura Ingalls Wilder spent most of her early years, and even the early years of her marriage travelling by horse and wagon, by the time she died in 1957, trains were old-fashioned, automobiles were commonplace, air travel was becoming popular, space satellites were orbiting the earth, and it was only four years before a human being would enter space for the very first time. It made me realise just how easy it can be to reach back through over 100 years of history, if only we take the time to listen. Some years ago, my parents attended a reunion in Auckland, of the descendants of people who had sailed to New Zealand on the Duchess of Argyle and the Jane Gifford and arrived in Auckland Harbour on 8 October 1842. At the reunion, my father spoke to an elderly lady, who told him that as a small child, her grandfather had told her stories about his experiences as a child on one of these ships. Through just two long lived people, Dad was able to make a connection with the early beginnings of formal European settlement in New Zealand. Likewise, there must be many people alive today, who knew Laura Ingalls Wilder, and through her, could reach back to the European settlement of the American West. As for me, when I was a child, my by then very elderly grandmother told me of life in Aotuhia, where she and my grandfather were breaking in a block of back country Taranaki land. Through those stories, I still have a connection to the pioneering past of New Zealand.
Most of all, my girls have enjoyed the nightly reading ritual. We sat on the sofa in the family room every evening, and they would quibble over whose turn it was to sit by herself on one side of me, who would be sitting next to me on the other side, and who would be on the far end. Eventually they worked out a rotation schedule. They got more and more confident about asking questions about what was going on, instead of just accepting the story wholesale, and they started to identify with Laura, and to compare characters in the books to children and adults that they know. When I read the couplet at the end of the last book, and closed it, I expected that the girls would be sad that the books had come to an end. But no. The younger Miss Six piped up. “Good,” she said. “I liked that. Now we can start on the Narnia books.”
Right, then. Expect future reports on the metaphysics of Narnia.